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Social Security is a perennial campaign issue. And so it is with the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, a rematch between Republican incumbent Ron Johnson and the man he defeated in 2010, Democrat Russ Feingold.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party targeted Johnson on the issue with a radio ad released May 4, 2016. A few moments into the spot, the narrator says:
"As senator, Johnson’s been working hard to undermine Social Security. He supported a plan to cut benefits and raise the retirement age. Johnson even said it’s a shame that George Bush wasn’t able to privatize Social Security. And he didn’t stop there. Johnson went after Medicare, voting to turn it into a voucher program."
We rated Mostly True the Medicare-voucher claim, as Johnson backed plans advanced by fellow Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who is now the House speaker. Under those plans, Medicare would no longer pay fees to health care providers -- instead, Medicare beneficiaries would get a fixed subsidy to use toward their health care.
Now let’s see whether Johnson has supported a plan to cut benefits and raise the retirement age for Social Security.
Democratic Party’s evidence
To back its claim, the Democratic Party cited Johnson’s support for two proposals -- one by Ryan and one by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Both were broad proposals, not specific strictly to Social Security.
Ryan’s 2010 "Roadmap" proposal called for what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described as "a wholesale rethinking" of Social Security, as well as Medicare and federal taxes. On Social Security, it would have reduced some benefits and raised the retirement age.
But based on two statements cited by the Democratic Party, Johnson didn’t express support for the Social Security changes, or for the Roadmap overall, rather he merely praised Ryan.
Johnson said he "applauds" Ryan "for putting forth a plan in good faith to begin the conversation on entitlement reform" and he said Ryan showed "courage" by advancing proposals such as the Roadmap.
Lee made a proposal in 2012 that included provisions to reduce the size of cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age for Social Security. Johnson was among 17 senators who voted for it.
But it was a federal budget proposal, covering a vast number of programs and proposals, not just Social Security. So, voting for the budget wasn’t necessarily showing support for every element it contained.
Johnson has said he is open to considering various options for shoring up Social Security, including cutting benefits and raising the retirement age. And he has pointed out, without necessarily endorsing the idea, that raising the retirement age would save money.
But that isn’t the same as supporting a proposal to make those changes.
What’s going on here, of course, is an age-old political exercise -- one side resists committing to a specific plan, while the other tries to pin as many unfavorable details on the other as possible.
We are left to sort it out based on what is on the record and the facts known now, not on speculation about what a future vote might involve.
The state Democratic Party says Johnson "supported a plan to cut benefits and raise the retirement age" for Social Security.
The party could not cite and we couldn’t find any proposal to make those changes that was supported by Johnson. Indeed, such a standalone proposal would have made major news.
Johnson has said he is open to considering such proposals and he voted for a federal budget proposal that contained them. But voting for a federal budget proposal and its myriad programs isn’t an explicit show of support for cutting benefits and raising the retirement age for Social Security.
For a statement that contains an element of truth, our rating is Mostly False.https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/1c82fcd0-22a2-4862-91b9-823b934a4ade
Wisconsin Democratic Party, radio ad, May 4, 2016
Interview, Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Harry Hartfield, June 29, 2006
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Lost in Ryan’s Roadmap? Get some direction," Sept. 9, 2010
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Ryan’s on the map, and taking heat," Sept. 1, 2010
Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Where would Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson cut spending?" Sept. 13, 2010
Soundcloud, Podcast of Charlie Sykes interview (9:00) of Ron Johnson, Nov. 9, 2015
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